If I can’t find the right name for a character, I can’t write that character. I can try. I will get words on a page, but if the name isn’t just right, the whole feel will be superficial. Like I’m playing at writing, instead of telling you a real story about these real…er…. people.
The characters have to be so freaking real to me, that whatever they’re called is of course their name, and to call them anything else would just be wrong. Like if someone started calling me Antoinette instead of Toni, I would know they were (a) on crack or (b) didn’t know me [because Toni, in my case, is not short for Antoinette], or (c) really wanted to be annoying.
I once had a discussion with my screenwriting agent about a script that had a lot of magical action in the story. My agent, who was very sweet, was also notorious for not always reading the action lines (the prose) of a script, and because she had skimmed over some critical action descriptions, she had gotten lost in the rules of the world. She asked me a question about those rules, and I said, “Well, on page 23, see, Frank said [blah blah blah],” and then she asked another question, and I said, “Well, on page 37, Frank explains [blah blah blah],” and then another question, and I said, “On page 59, Frank does [action blah blah blah] and then tells Charlie [blah blah blah],” and this went on for another ten minutes until she pounded on her desk with the palm of her hand and said, “Toni! FRANK IS NOT REAL.”
You couldda heard crickets in that office. I felt like something had been ripped from my chest, like she’d just murdered one of my dearest friends, because of course he was real! He was right there on page…
Okay, then. Maybe not real real, but real to me. And, I hoped, real enough to the reader that if Frank said it, then it had to be true. (grin) Because Frank didn’t lie. (He was a sweet guy, Frank. A psychologist who’d lost his wife and had screwed up her afterlife, too, so he hadn’t recovered, ever, from that mistake, though he tried to help others [Charlie and Emma] not make the same one he had made. Poor guy. I always felt really bad for Frank.)
(Frank keeps telling me that his story–well, really, it’s Charlie and Emma’s story, but Frank doesn’t know that–needs to be a book. He’s a little put out that Bobbie Faye got to start off as a script and then turn into not one but three books, but I have explained to him that I’m not quite ready to do that. Soon, maybe. But not for at least a year.)
Ironically, in my most recent book, I ended up with a character named Jack. Now, there are a million Jacks out there, and I tried hard to talk this character out of that name, but he wouldn’t listen. Because, technically, he is named Jackson, and that ends up playing a really critical role in a choice that gets made in the story and he pointed that out to me (long before I even realized there was going to be a choice, and how that was going to affect the story), so it’s kinda hard to argue with him, when he came prepped with logic and better debate skills than I have. [There is probably a medicine for the fact that I think “They” are actually better than “I” am at debating, but we’ll just roll with “Writer Brain” as my excuse.]
I especially love it when characters so clearly embody a name that they leap off the page, and all you have to do in a room full of readers is say the first name, and most people know who you’re talking about. And like most authors, I’m always on the lookout for great names, memorable names (Frank notwithstanding).
What’s your favorite character’s name? What the most overused name that you hope to never see (except for Jack… y’all would love Jack.)